Energy & Environment

Ukrainian activist behind Russian oil embargo blocked from attending top energy conference

Svitlana Romanko – leading climate activist in Ukraine. (Сергій Горічок / Sergii Gorichok/Creative Commons – CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

An award-winning Ukrainian climate activist was barred from a major energy conference the day before it began — after flying to Houston to attend.

Svitlana Romanko, an environmental lawyer, said she had planned to lobby delegates at CERAWeek, — a world-leading energy conference with deep roots in the fossil fuel oil and gas industry hosted by financial analytics firm S&P Global — against further investment in either Russian or U.S. expansions to their gas industries.

“On the false premise of energy security, these companies are trying to lock us into serious climate change,” she said. “But there is no energy security in stranded assets and overcapacity.”

In late February, she bought tickets to the event — which is taking place this week — after S&P Global had confirmed her registration. Then, the night before the conference, she received an email telling her that S&P had canceled her attendance and refunded her money.

“As organizers of this private event, we carefully assess security concerns and may deny entry to individuals or entities who have disrupted prior events,” a spokesperson from S&P Global wrote the Hill. 

The Stand With Ukraine movement that Romanko helped launch succeeded in getting Western governments to agree to a Russian oil embargo, for which she won the Center for Biological Diversity’s Rose Braz award. 

The activists failed, however, to secure a full ban on Russian gas — a source on which Europe still depends for about 10 percent of its gas and that U.S. officials and executives hope to supplant with “greener” natural gas.

In November, Romanko was also suspended from the U.N. climate conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, after calling the Russian government and oil executives at a Moscow-sponsored event promoting the country’s petroleum industry representatives of “a terrorist state.”

But her eviction from that conference came alongside rising tensions between activists and oil industry lobbyists, who have been an increasing presence in climate circles, Reuters reported. U.N. security also ejected BBC’s climate editor from the same event after he asked if Russia would “pay for the environmental damage you have caused in Ukraine?” 

Despite this history, barring Romanko represented “cowardice” on S&P’s behalf, Simon Taylor, co-founder of the venerable human rights reporting group Global Witness, told The Hill.

“They should have let her in,” Taylor said. “They should have given her a hearing.”

Taylor — who wrote to S&P Global Vice Chairman Daniel Yergin, a Pultizer-Prize winning journalist covering oil, after Romanko was barred from the event —argued that her presence at the conference would have pushed fossil fuel executives to “get to grips with” two of its most important issues.

First was support for the Russian oil industry — into which U.S. financial institutions still have more than $23 billion invested, according to The Guardian. That funding — along with the continued sale of refined products made from Russian oil by countries like Turkey — “continues to bankroll Putin’s war of mass murder and destruction,” Taylor wrote.

He also pointed to “the elephant in the room, namely the climate crisis — a situation the fossil fuel industry has played such a profound role in creating,” he wrote. 

These two issues weave together, however,  as the Guardian reported that the $23 billion investment into Russian fossil fuels goes specifically to projects that would each release at least 1 billion metric tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide — three times the national emission rate from the United Kingdom.

Inside CERAWeek, U.S. presidential climate envoy John Kerry acknowledged that these emissions represented a problem.

“We can’t do it without the oil and gas industry,” he said, referring to U.S. climate goals. 

He pointed in particular to the industry’s emissions of virulent climate-pollutant methane, comprising 15 percent of the earth’s emissions. “If they were a nation, they’d be the third-biggest emitter in the world.”

For Romanko, as for many scientists and activists, that huge footprint — coupled with the long lifespan of each new natural gas plant or LNG liquefaction terminal in an era when emissions should be declining — is a reason to avoid further investment in the sector.

Romanko pointed to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s September speech in which he said, “Ukraine can and, I am sure, will become a green energy hub for Europe.” 

In that speech, Zelensky painted a vision of Ukraine as a major exporter of renewable electricity to Europe — a goal that the U.S. has been working on “non-stop,” according to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

As Granholm noted last summer, Ukraine had taken a big step down that path when it began sending electricity to the European power grid — even as its forces fought the invading Russian army in the east.

In last September’s speech, Zelensky linked clean electricity and military campaigns.

“It is a very important factor that [the beginning of electricity exports] happened during the war,” he said. “We export, but the scale of cooperation can be hundreds of times larger – imagine the profit for each participant in the energy business.” 

The Ukrainian president doubled down on these remarks in January when he told E.U. vice president Frans Timmermans that his administration would focus on “green projects” in reconstructing the nation’s electric grid and cities. 

Romanko fears a flood of U.S. natural gas could supplant clean energy progress. Despite harsh criticism from Republicans of Biden’s “war on oil and gas,” the administration is backing plans to build 16 new LNG export terminals on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. 

She also charged that the demand there for this fuel is exaggerated. A leaked internal analysis from the German government suggests that the country’s embrace of new LNG terminals following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine significantly overestimated the country’s need for the fuel — which is anticipated to fall by a third by decade’s end, Brussels-based news site Euractiv reported last month.

That’s a significant change from 2022, when oil and gas companies finalized 45 deals last year to sell LNG in Europe — three times as many as the previous year, according to a report published in February by Bailoutwatch and Public Citizen. 

While “Europe needs alternate sources of gas,” the continent’s buyers were slow to agree to the long-term purchasing agreements that would make an LNG project worthwhile, Chevron CEO Mike Wirth said at CERAWeek.

To better promote gas in climate-conscious European markets, the Biden administration wants to certify as “green” gas companies that use lower-emission methods or purchase carbon offsets as lower carbon — easing sales to Europe, as Reuters reported last week.

And with gas demand declining in the U.S., Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-La.) visited Japan this week to promote LNG shipments to that country.

Like many European climate activists, Romanko argues that green gas is an oxymoron, and the increase in supply itself is unnecessary, because it will commit the world to decades of additional planetary heating.

That message increasingly resonates with local organizations fighting gas expansion on the Gulf Coast.

In Louisiana, for example, the state’s embrace of “petrochemicals, export gas terminals and heavy industry has left home values plunging and stores closing next to some of the biggest, richest companies in the world,” the Louisiana Bucket Brigade wrote after Gov. Edwards visited Japan.

In Calcasieu Parish, on the Louisiana coast, the Brigade charged that illegal releases of toxic chemicals were harming citizens and killing off fisheries, The Hill reported.

“What kind of economic development plan prioritizes polluters over families who have lived here for generations?” the group asked. 

Representatives of a Texas anti-gas organization took Romanko to visit neighborhoods around the sprawling LNG plant in Freeport, Texas — a town whose population has fallen by 17 percent since 2002.

The plant partially reopened in February after a methane-fueled leak caused a 450-foot fireball in June, The Texas Observer reported.

The abandoned homes around the Freeport LNG plant, Romanko said, reminded her of the Ukrainian city of Mariinka — a town of 10,000 leveled almost entirely in the fighting.

“Only here, it is the own government, against its citizens,” she said. “It’s completely apocalyptic.”

Tags Climate change Houston John Kerry Russia-Ukraine war Russian oil embargo ukraine

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